Some audiologists and hearing aid manufacturers who distribute across the country have started offering leases, which generally are a package of devices and services in a subscription plan. But leasing hearing aids is still relatively new and far from common.
“Subscription systems have been talked about for a long time in hearing care but only used very rarely,” says Jim Kothe, head of sales at Silicon Valley hearing aid startup Whisper, which sells its hearing aid only by subscription. “One reason is simply inertia; this is the way hearing aids have always been purchased. No one is exactly sure what percentage of the market goes through subscription or lease, but I’d estimate it is less than 5 percent today.”
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Hearing loss is a common consequence of aging and a risk factor for dementia if left untreated. About a third of people ages 65 to 74 have some hearing loss, and nearly half of those 75 and older have difficulty hearing.
Some who have a slight hearing loss are expected to benefit from a new generation of less expensive, over-the-counter hearing aids approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration that could hit store shelves this year. But pricier, medical-grade hearing aids that an audiologist or hearing aid dispenser fits specifically to your ears will perform better in restaurants or other noisy environments, a benefit to those with greater hearing problems. Some hearing aids aren’t as effective in lowering the volume on background noise so those sounds won’t drown out what you want to hear.
Leasing hearing aids has some obvious benefits and a few drawbacks. Here’s why to lease — or not.
Pro: You can pay monthly instead of all at once
Audiologist Kathleen Page, who owns H.E.A.R.S. Audiology in Smithtown, New York, understands why some people will not help their hearing.
“To have to come up with a few thousand dollars in one chunk is not easy,” she says. Simply put, leasing may better fit your budget.
Here’s how getting a hearing aid typically works: You visit an audiologist or hearing aid dispenser to assess your hearing, determine the type of hearing aid that is best for you and discuss financing options. That may include leasing or some other form of credit that spreads payment over several months or perhaps years.
Pro: Your fittings, repairs are included
In early 2020, Page began offering three-year subscription plans, ranging from $100 to $175 a month depending on the technology, for all of the hearing aids available through her practice. Fees cover office visits, batteries and repairs, including the possibility of reprogramming a hearing aid in the middle of a lease.
“It’s less than a cable bill” with internet service, Page says of the monthly fees.
Buyer be aware
• Any lease is a financial obligation. You should be given time to determine the total cost of your hearing aids, how the deal compares with outright purchase and whether the monthly fee meshes with your budget. Check for complaints with the Better Business Bureau or your state’s hearing aid dispenser licensing board. Walk away from any high-pressure sales tactics.
• The details are often in fine print. Review all your paperwork thoroughly before signing to make sure you understand it. Check to see if you will incur additional fees if a lease is terminated early for various causes, including death.
• A trial period is important. Look for at least 30 days and preferably 45 days or longer. Try your hearing aids in quiet and noisy settings, on the phone, in large groups and watching TV. Find out how many office visits are included to get the devices adjusted and whether you can return them or must switch to another model offered at the same hearing aid dispensary.
Patients also get a 45-day trial period and must be approved for financing. In Page’s practice, Allegro Credit, now being acquired by Stamford, Connecticut-based Synchrony, handles the details.
Elkhart Audiology Rehab in Elkhart, Indiana, also offers a hearing aid subscription through Allegro. Monthly payments range from $129 to $179 for a 48-month term.
Pro: You get the latest technology
Hearing aids generally last four to seven years, according to manufacturers. Ones that sit totally within the ear tend to have a life span on the shorter end of the scale because they’re exposed to more earwax, dirt and sweat inside the ear canal.
Similar to leasing an automobile, one advantage to leasing a hearing aid is the ability to get a new model, along with a new lease, at the end of the term.
Because of recent advances in hearing aids, even devices as little as three years old don’t necessarily have the latest technology, just like a three-year-old cellphone. Newer models have features that can help a patient whose hearing is gradually getting worse.
The promised benefit behind startup Whisper’s recently launched hearing aid system is that the device will get smarter the longer it’s worn. By leveraging artificial intelligence, San Francisco-based Whisper updates the software inside its hearing aid every few months.
Its system consists of three components:
- The earpieces you wear
- A pocket-sized rechargeable wireless Whisper Brain that processes and “separates” the sounds in your surroundings, and
- An iPhone-only app (with an Android version coming later).
The Lyric model from Swiss manufacturer Phonak sits so close to the eardrum that the company’s advertising calls it “invisible.” The hearing aid is designed to stay in place for months as you sleep, wear headsets, even shower. It is replaced when the battery weakens. If a user has to remove the device, a new one is inserted at the audiologist’s or hearing aid dispenser’s office as part of the subscription price.
Lyric is the only hearing aid in Phonak’s portfolio that is sold through a yearly subscription, which makes it more like an annual property-tax bill than a monthly utility bill. One-, two- and three-year Lyric subscriptions through a certified provider have an average annual cost of $1,700 to $1,900 for each ear.
Pro: You can replace a lost hearing aid
Whisper’s subscription covers care from the hearing professional, who will match the device to your hearing needs, as well as an unlimited warranty for loss and damage.
“If you have a grandmother that’s prone to leaving a hearing aid in the back of a cab or at her friend’s pinochle [card game], this might be the device for her because we don’t care how many times she loses it,” says Whisper cofounder and CEO Dwight Crow. Customers do pay for standard replacement batteries for the earpiece, which last four to five days.
A Lyric subscription also includes replacement and servicing. At audiologist Page’s practice, a one-time loss is covered after payment of a deductible during the three-year term. A client who loses the hearing aids more than once will have to pay to replace them.
Pro: You may worry about using them enough
Another delicate issue could motivate someone to lease: A person with other health problems may not want to shell out money to buy a hearing aid for fear of not living long enough to derive the full benefit. Make sure that language in the leasing contract terminates the leasing agreement upon death.
Con: You’ll pay more
When you add everything up, you’ll likely pay more than if you had bought the hearing aid outright, as much as $300 more for her devices, according to Page. At the end of a lease, a patient has the option of paying a “residual” amount and keeping the hearing aids, which at $1,200 to $2,000 for the pair will end up costing quite a bit more than if a person had purchased the devices outright initially. Or the patient can exchange the hearing aids in good working order for the most current technology and continue making the same payment for another three-year term.
Whisper’s introductory $139 monthly subscription price works out to a little more than $5,000 after three years, so it isn’t cheap. And the price eventually will climb to $179 a month.
“While you’re paying, it keeps getting better. If your payment continues, you get completely new hardware every three years,” Crow says.
Con: You like owning something
Paying up front means you don’t have to assume an ongoing financial burden. And some folks like the idea of owning a product rather than in effect borrowing it.
If you don’t want to budget a never-ending monthly fee, some Medicare Advantage plans offer a benefit to help you buy hearing aids outright. But even if you need hearing help and are on a private insurance plan, without special insurance similar to dental and vision plans, insurers generally don’t pay for the devices.
Other ways are available to finance hearing aids. Costco’s Kirkland brand of Bluetooth-compatible behind-the-ear hearing aids, which cost about $1,500 a pair up front, received the top marks for overall satisfaction in an April 20-June 18, 2018, survey of Consumer Reports members.
San Jose, California-based Eargo, which sells its own brand of hearing aids online only with an audiologist consultation by phone or Zoom, offers up to two-year financing plans for three models that sell up front for $1,850 to $2,950 a pair. The monthly cost on the financing plan for the least expensive model is $86, an additional $214 over 24 months over outright purchase. The in-ear devices have an expected three-year life.
“We always call hearing loss and hearing aids the health tragedy that nobody heard of because out of the 43 million Americans with hearing loss, only a quarter of them are doing anything about it,” Eargo CEO Christian Gormsen says. “[That] is just wrong by every dimension.”
Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is author of Macs for Dummies and coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.